Federal fisheries managers have acknowledged the ongoing crisis in Alaska salmon stocks, and have opted to respond with additional research and a request to the Pollock industry to institute immediate measures to reduce chum bycatch during the summer fishery.
At its June meeting in Sitka, Alaska, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council requested a discussion paper on chum salmon bycatch building on the previous analysis, which was performed in 2012. But for now, the council has opted not to impose new restrictions that would impact the Pollock trawl vessels whose bycatch of chum salmon in 2021 reached 546,043 fish.
Additionally, the Pollock industry was asked to report back at the end of the B season on how bycatch reduction efforts worked.
During the meeting, the council heard salmon bycatch genetics reports for 2020 and 2021, and possible solutions from a report prepared by staff from the council, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Another report noted that total chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Pollock fishery ranged from 24,000 to 535,000 total catch annually between 2011 and 2021.
The council said in its report on the meeting that science indicates that climate is the primary driver of poor salmon returns to Western Alaska, but that nevertheless the council is committed to continued improvements in bycatch management, with a goal of minimizing bycatch at all levels of salmon and Pollock abundance.
The council initiated a salmon bycatch committee composed of tribal members, scientists, industry representatives and other experts to provide recommendations on the discussion paper on chum salmon bycatch and findings and recommendations from the state’s bycatch taskforce and other current information, to include local, traditional and subsistence knowledge and needed research to determine what is driving the decline of Western Alaska salmon stocks.
The Alaska Bycatch Review Task Force (ABRT) is to deliver is recommendations by November and meet prior to the council’s December council meeting to provide its recommendations to the council in conjunction with the review of the discussion paper and taskforce recommendations, the council report said.
Spokespersons for the groundfish fisheries, including Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents harvesters and processors, told the council that while the demise of salmon in Western Alaska rivers was heartbreaking that there were issues beyond bycatch that are responsible.
The council decided, after considerable public testimony from harvesters who live along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, to request a discussion paper on chum salmon bycatch, including an updated chum salmon bycatch and genetic stock composition data; a discussion of tradeoffs in the Bering Sea Pollock fishery associated with avoiding different prohibited species catch of chum and Chinook salmon and herring; and a summary of conditions that have changed since the 2012 analysis of increased Asian hatchery releases and western Alaska chum salmon stock status.
The council also indicated strong support for prioritizing further research on Bering Sea salmon.
SalmonState, an Alaska-based entity that supports protections of salmon and salmon habitat, was critical of the federal council for not taking what it considers meaningful action on the trawl fleet’s salmon bycatch.
“Simply put, the system is broken and the public has completely lost trust in the Council process,” SalmonState Executive Director Tim Bristol commented. “The time for action is now: Alaska is on the verge of losing something that doesn’t really exist anyplace in the world anymore. We believe in science, we believe in sound management and thoughtful and careful decision making but this process has been captured by the biggest and the richest and does not work for the rest of us anymore.”
“If there were the science-based processes that Alaskans were promised when the Magnuson-Stevens Act was created, then the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council would have taken action years ago to mandate a reduction in bycatch,” Lindsey Bloom, a commercial fisherman and campaign strategist with SalmonState said.
While locals who depend on the fish for sustenance and cultural survival are prohibited from harvesting them this year, the factory trawlers are allowed to take tens of thousands of them bound for those same rivers, Bloom said.
The federal and state management bodies are obligated to sustain the continued existence of salmon and our salmon fisheries and the numbers and data presented at this council meeting support nothing less than decisive action to reduce salmon allowed to be taken as bycatch,” she remarked. “The process has been totally hijacked by big corporations and politics and is no longer a system Alaskan’s can trust.”
SalmonState pointed to NOAA’s genetics studies for 2020 and 2021 of trawl salmon bycatch that were released at the end of May, which stated that 52% of Chinook bycatch from the BSAI Pollock trawl fishery in 2020 included an estimated 16,796 fish originating in coastal Western Alaska, and that the BSAI Pollock trawl fishery caught 51,510 chum salmon that originated in Western Alaska and the Upper/Middle Yukon River in 2021.